Chasing Cruise and Waymo, Chinese AV company AutoX plans to begin testing in San Francisco

AutoX, a Chinese autonomous vehicle company that has made plays in both the U.S. and its home country, is now making a move into San Francisco, an area where its biggest competitors are creeping toward commercialization.

The company, which has been testing its vehicles in the greater San Jose area since 2016, shared plans to launch robotaxi operations and build an operations center in the Golden City. The center will be responsible for vehicle housing, maintenance and charging, as well as processing data collected by the cars locally and calibrating their sensors. AutoX is hiring to build out its local San Francisco team, according to AutoX’s CEO Dr. Jianxiong Xiao, who also goes by Professor X.

AutoX plans to initially start testing its hybrid Fiat Chrysler Pacificas, equipped with the company’s latest fifth-generation AV platform and a redundant drive-by-wire system, with human safety operators behind the wheel. The AV company has already acquired both a drivered testing permit, which allows testing with a human safety operator behind the wheel, and a driverless testing permit, which allows testing without a human safety operator, from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. However, AutoX’s driverless testing permit is for its third-generation vehicle and is strictly limited to San Jose, so AutoX will have to request that the DMV expand that permit to include driverless testing using its newest system in San Francisco.

The Dongfeng Motor-backed company did not say when it plans to pull the driver out for testing in San Francisco, but it did say that it would continue driverless testing in San Jose.

AutoX is moving into San Francisco at a time when others like Cruise and Waymo are actually spinning up commercial operations. Both companies have permits from the DMV to deploy their vehicles, which means they can start earning revenue for autonomous deliveries. Cruise still needs a final permit from the California Public Utilities Commission before it can charge for its robotaxi service, but the General Motors-owned company just nabbed an additional $1.35 billion from investor SoftBank as it opened up its driverless ride-hailing service to the public.

The DMV’s annual disengagement reports, which were released on Wednesday, showed that Waymo drove 2.3 million autonomous miles on California’s public roads in 2021, which was far more than any competitor. Cruise followed second with around 900,000 miles driven, both with and without a human safety driver.

The same data shows that AutoX, which only drove around 50,000 miles with a safety operator, did not report any driverless testing of its vehicles. That said, AV developers aren’t required to report testing done on private tracks or closed courses.

In California, AutoX’s fleet size is 44 vehicles, according to the company. The DMV’s data shows that only six of AutoX’s total fleet were actively used for autonomous testing last year. AutoX attributes this to COVID leading the company to scale down testing, but it plans to ramp it back up this year.

AutoX is also claiming to be scaling massively in China with a robotaxi fleet of 1,000 vehicles, which the company says are distributed throughout the cities of Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen, where AutoX deploys a driverless fleet. The company would not share the number of rides it has accrued via said fleet.

AutoX frequently touts its in-house full stack hardware capability, which includes a compute platform and various kinds of sensors. The kind of tech to back this up, combined with the move to increase operations in San Francisco and the expansion of a robotaxi fleet back in China, would require seriously large amounts of capital to fund.

The company last publicly announced a Series A raise in 2019, an investment that put AutoX at $160 million in total funding. For comparison, nearly all of AutoX’s Chinese competitors received funding in 2021. Momenta and raised $1.2 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively, WeRide raised over $600 million within a span of five months last year and, a relatively newer company, has raised $350 million as of September 2021.

To the question of how AutoX is able to do so much scaling with less funds, Professor X told TechCrunch that while the company is indeed looking to raise a round in the coming months, it leans on the support from previous investors as well as the massive market in China for robotaxi services.